“Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case” is the second film pairing director Jean Delannoy with actor Jean Gabin, adapting the mystery novels of George Simenon. Released roughly a year after “Maigret Sets a Trap,” the movie acts as a stand-alone episode rather than a sequel, and is just one of many adaptations of a character that has not enjoyed the same popularity in the U.S. as in Europe.
Here, Inspector Maigret has departed Paris for a small hamlet in the countryside. Summoned to the town and chateau in which he was reared, the Countess - a boyhood crush when she arrived as a young bride and he was a teenage boy - has received a death threat, telling her she will not survive beyond Ash Wednesday. However, she has no enemies and the threat seems oddly hollow.
Despite forty years gone between them, some echo of affection remains between Maigret and the Countess, and - to Gabin’s credit - no word is spoken of the melancholy that seems to set in just by returning to the town in which he was raised, and why he left is never spoken. Stepping into the once grand chateau, he sees it is poorly maintained, but that the accoutrements of the house - from paintings to the collections of books - have been sold. And the Countess, we learn, is in deeply ill health.
At mass the morning of Ash Wednesday, the Countess simply falls dead in her pew, the victim of a heart attack.
Perhaps framed more like a traditional “whodunit” than the prior installment, “Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case” follows the detective, acting outside his jurisdiction, as he makes his way through the roster of possible suspects, from the dilettante son to the local priest. Gabin’s nuanced performance gives an air of the melancholy, all of this occurring in his childhood home and the death a personal tragedy giving weight and deeper stakes to the resolution of the crime - which everyone is quick to write off as natural calamity. Maigret’s reading of the suspects, his dogged pursuit of the truth, make for some fascinating sleuthing - something echoed in modern police procedurals, but with less formula applied here - the effect echoes Hammett’s “Thin Man” more than “Law and Order.”
Shot in a mix of soundstage for the Chateau and real locations in a small French village, the film exists in a different world from the winding streets of Paris seen in the prior film, for a different crime with an altogether different impact on Maigret. The presentation by Kino Lorber on BluRay is magnificent, with a crisp transfer of the film, but it is lacking in extras.
If “Maigret Sets a Trap” made for a psychological thriller, this film bears more of the mark of the pure detective novel, but that’s not to its detriment. For the pure mystery aficionado, “Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case” offers a twisting puzzle of a story, a superlative lead in Gabin and a location and framing that offer more than your boilerplate procedural.